Tomorrow at 7 PM, Northwest Chicago Film Society will present a 35-millimeter print of Out of the Blue (1980), Dennis Hopper’s third directorial effort, at Northeastern University. Hopper described Blue as a follow-up to Easy Rider, even though it contains none of the same characters or that film’s fascination with motorcycle culture; rather, the connection is spiritual and stylistic. As Reader emeritus Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote, the movie is defined by “the Hopper flavor: relentlessly raunchy and downbeat, and informed throughout by the kind of generational anguish and sense of doom that characterizes both of his earlier films [Rider and The Last Movie].” It’s unmistakably a downer, beginning and ending with scenes of violent death and featuring numerous depictions of drug abuse and emotional violence along the way. It’s also a haunting portrait of juvenile delinquency that ranks among the most powerful in American cinema.
Linda Manz (best known as the heroine of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven) stars as Cebe, a 15-year-old living in a blue-collar area outside of Vancouver. When the movie begins, her father (Hopper) has been in jail for five years for a drunk-driving accident that killed an entire school bus filled with children. Her mother (Sharon Farrell) is a heroin addict who’s provided little guidance in the father’s absence. Cebe often cuts school, smokes pot, and picks fights; her heroes are Elvis Presley and the Sex Pistols. She ascribes to punk ethos like the antiheroes of Rider ascribed to the dropout ethos of their era, taking pride in her aimlessness and disrespect for authority. However, she still looks up to her father. When he’s released from prison, she hangs around him affectionately, even though he continues to be a raging drunk. Hopper the director likewise presents this broken family with affection, emphasizing the characters’ humanity in spite of their flawed nature.
Surely Hopper related to their flaws—he directed Out of the Blue when he was at the height of his alcoholism and drug addiction. (He wasn’t supposed to direct the movie at first. When the original director, Leonard Yakir, got kicked off the production, Hopper took over for him, but first he rewrote the script to make it more personal.) The film, in fact, suggests the influence of drug experience in its uncommon narrative structure. Hopper skips over scenes you’d expect him to show (like the father getting released from prison) and lingers on incidental moments that don’t move the story forward. Yet this feels like an appropriate way to convey the driftlessness of the characters’ lives. Consider a lengthy passage that occurs in the middle of the film, wherein Cebe heads to Vancouver for a debauched night. She gets into a taxi and talks up the driver about punk rock, and he offers to take her to a house where they can get high. Hopper presents the drug den in lurid, authentic-seeming detail, letting his camera rest on images of people doing various nasty business in different rooms of the house. In these moments, one gets a vivid sense of how far down Cebe has gone and how much further she can still go.
After Cebe gets high, she sprawls out on a bed and sucks her thumb—a memorable image that reminds us that this character is still a child. In a sense, all three major characters of Out of the Blue are children, as they’re incapable of taking control of their lives. Hopper’s truck driver shows no remorse for the accident that landed him in jail (at one point he even picks a fight with the father of one of his victims), nor does he make any effort to better himself upon release. He gets drunk at every opportunity, loses his job at a garbage dump, and abuses his wife. That Cebe looks to him as a role model reflects the absence of role models in her life.
It’s a sad existence, though Hopper acknowledges how this existence can be exhilarating. The acting in Out of the Blue is galvanic, conveying extreme emotional states with raw power, and Hopper often presents scenes in long takes that preserve the intensity of the performances. Watching the film, you get absorbed in the characters’ self-destructive behavior even though you know it will come to no good.